DACA stories: Two Iowa-raised brothers face uncertain futures

Illustration by Jordan Sellergren

David looked nervous sitting at a table in the University of Iowa Main Library. It wasn’t being in the library that made him nervous — he’s spent a lot of time there as an undergraduate studying graphic design at UI — it was discussing his immigration status. David is one of approximately 118,000 young people around the country waiting to find out if his application to be covered by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Act (DACA) for the next two years is going to be approved.

David’s family immigrated from Mexico after his father was recruited for an engineering job in Iowa. His older brother was born in the United States, but David and his younger brother, Sebastian — a biology and pre-med student at Kirkwood Community College — were born in Mexico.

“We’ve been living here since I was five. Sure, we come from Mexican culture, but we are Americanized because we’ve been here for so long. Culturally, I think we are more American than Mexican,” David said.

President Obama issued an executive order creating DACA in June 2012. Under DACA, the Department of Homeland Security ceased initiating deportation proceedings against undocumented immigrants who came to the United States before turning 16, have lived in the country for five or more years and are in school, have graduated from high school or are military veterans of good standing. No one convicted of a crime is eligible for DACA.

DACA does not confer citizenship or advance the citizenship claims of those who qualify for it, but it does allow those covered, often called “Dreamers,” to apply for such common legal documents as a driver’s license and a work permit. Approximately 2,800 Iowa residents are covered by DACA. Nationwide, it’s estimated DACA covers 800,000 people.

Since they met the eligibility requirements for DACA, both David and Sebastian applied in 2012.

Sebastian’s application was approved. David’s was rejected.

“You hear stories of citizens coming in or other immigrants getting residency even though they came here illegally. It seems like it was much easier for them, but we’re over here trying to take the right steps, and we [keep getting denied],” David said.

Despite his initial rejection, David applied for DACA once again, right before the Trump administration announced in September that the DACA program will be terminated.

But still, David’s family worries about his future since his status remains uncertain.

“My parents are constantly stressing about David,” Sebastian said. They’re so worried that something is going to happen — he’ll get stopped, or this or that — and it will all be over.”

Each DACA application is reviewed on a case-by-case basis, but since the brothers’ backgrounds are virtually the same, the fact that one was rejected and the other accepted has left the both with concerns about their places in the immigration system and American society.

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“It’s like stepping on hot coals,” Sebastian said. “My room for error is a lot less than someone who is a citizen of the United States. Let’s say I get pulled over or arrested for whatever reason, if, in the government’s eyes, they think I committed a crime, I could just be sent back to Mexico.”

“But for me, I have my paperwork. A cop could try to take advantage of the fact that it’s DACA [and not citizenship],” he added. “But I really don’t think that would happen.”

Gaining permanent resident status, and eventually U.S. citizenship, is something both brothers have been working towards for the past several years. If they were forced to return to Mexico, a country where they have spent very little time, the futures they have begun building for themselves would no longer be possible.

“From what my parents told me, there isn’t really a graphic design field. The career that I’m choosing, it seems like I have to stay in the U.S. for,” David said.

“I think if I went to Mexico, it would be a drastic change. I would have to start at level one there. I could work, but I don’t want to be working some job that I wouldn’t be happy at for the rest of my life.”

David is trying to stay positive while waiting for the decision on his status.

“Waiting, for me, means really going hard at what I’m trying to make a career out of. Trying to work as much as possible as well. Making sure that when I do get residency and eventually citizenship, I’ll already have a pretty solid foundation. I don’t want to be waiting for my status and just sitting around, and finally choosing to apply myself once I get my status.”

Karla Alvarez, a multicultural specialist at the UI’s Center for Diversity and Enrichment, advised DACA applicants waiting on application decisions to: “Stay on top of the news. Get educated on the whole process, reach out to community leaders, and be in the community to support each other. This has an emotional impact. We don’t know what the future will look like, so it is hard to focus on school with so many issues in the community and in regards to their own families. Just have faith in the system, and practice self care.”

Right now, there is no policy to take DACA’s place, and immigrants have no idea what will happen to them once the DACA statuses have expired.

“I got my application in before [the termination of DACA], so hopefully that will go through.” David said. “But who knows?”

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